Caring for your wartime memorabilia
- Motion picture film

One of the best ways to ensure the long term survival of your film is to have a video copy made. Check the Yellow Pages for 'video production and/or duplication services'.

Motion picture films are composed of a thin gelatine emulsion layer coated onto a thin layer of plastic.

In very old films this plastic base may be the highly flammable cellulose nitrate. Newer film stocks are made on bases of cellulose acetate or polyester. These are called 'safety' films because inhibitors are added to the base during manufacture to prevent it from burning.

Manufacture of nitrate film ceased in the early 1950s and was mostly 35mm film.

Amateur filmmakers used mostly 8 mm (standard 8 and Super 8), 16 mm and sometimes 9.5 mm, all of which were probably safety-based film stocks.

Movie projector

If you think you have a nitrate-based film, you should seek advice from ScreenSound Australia, as there is a high fire risk.

Movie film should always be stored in a film can, preferably one made from a safe plastic such as polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene to protect it from dust and other foreign matter and minimise damage from handling.

Do not put the film or the cans in plastic bags as this may accelerate deterioration.

Black and white film should be stored at around 15-18 degrees Celsius, while colour is best kept at temperatures of less than 8 degrees, if possible. This does not mean that you should store film in a refrigerator-refrigerators are too moist for proper film storage-but somewhere cool in the house should generally be fine.

Before storing movie film, wind it by hand across to another spool at an even but slightly loose tension, so that the film just holds itself together without sagging. This helps to slow the process of deterioration. Then, before projection, rewind the film at a firm but not overly tight tension back to the original spool. The firmer tension prevents the film slipping against itself and causing small scratches as the projector pulls the film into the gate.

A set of rewind arms can be purchased through most photo dealers, although they may have to order them in for you. When using rewind arms, place one hand on the crank you will turn. The other hand steadies the film by holding it on its edges between the thumb and the forefinger and gripping lightly to provide the correct tension. Do not grip too tightly as you can easily tear the film if it has any damage to the sprocket hole area. An alternate way to steady the film is to lightly hold the reel itself, but if the film is loose on the spool you run the risk of 'cinching' the layers, and causing scratching to the image. Common sense will soon tell you which method is best suited to your circumstances.

If the film has to be transported, such as through the post, then it should be wound to the same tension as for projection to prevent scratching if it is jostled during transport.

Examples of films

Before each showing of your film, clean the gate of your projector with a small brush to remove hairs or dust that can scratch your film.

If, during a screening, you notice the projector making an unusual sound, stop it immediately and check that the film is still properly threaded. Dropped loops can occur even with the most fastidious projectionist. Regular servicing of projectors will also minimise the chances of damage.

All films have a slight 'chemical' smell, which is normal, but films that have begun to deteriorate often emit a strong odour, most often like vinegar or strong mothballs.

Other indicators of problems are small white or clear crystals appearing on the film's surface, a large degree of curling, or the emulsion layer flaking off during handling.

If your films start to show any signs of deterioration or mould formation, then the best course of action is to separate those reels from others and seek expert advice.

Water, next to fire, is the worst hazard for films and may destroy them completely, so films should be kept away from places where a leak or overflow of water may occur.

Should a roll of movie film become wet, put it in a freezer bag, obtainable from most grocery outlets, and place in your household freezer. Call ScreenSound Australia as soon as possible during business hours for information on what to do next. Do not be tempted to leave the film in, say, a bucket of water, as the emulsion will soften and may be attacked by bacteria or mould. Do not attempt to unroll the spool to dry it out.

With care, there is no reason why your movie film should not last for many years. Some amateur films in ScreenSound Australia's archive, for example, are well over 70 years old.